Friday, July 31, 2015

Varne Island

In 1802, Albert Mathieu, a French mining engineer, put forward a proposal to tunnel under the English Channel, with illumination from oil lamps, horse-drawn coaches, and an artificial island mid-Channel for changing horses. Aimé Thomé de Gamond explored several schemes and, in 1856, he presented a proposal to Napoleon III for a railway tunnel from Cap Gris-Nez to Eastwater Point, also with construction on the nine kilometre long Varne sandbank which is in British waters.

A hundred and fifty years later we have the Eurotunnel. We have also what some see as the latest threat from France to Fortress Britannia in the person of thousands of unfortunates who seek to have British soil beneath their feet. 

Might an artificial Varne Island suffice? The Chinese have demonstrated in waters they claim as their own that ambitious land reclamation projects can be completed with rapidity. Specialist civil engineering firms from the Netherlands have demonstrated their mastery of the technologies required when they delvered spectacular man-made islands off the coast of the United Arab Emirates.

In the past islands have played a role in the processing and control of migration. Ellis Island off the western shore of Upper New York Bay was the gateway for millions of immigrants to the United States as the nation's busiest immigrant inspection station from 1892 until 1954. The island was greatly expanded with land reclamation between 1892 and 1934.  More recently Australia has tried to ‘off-shore’ its refugee and asylum-seeker problem with recourse to processing of arrivals on islands like Manus belonging to Papua New Guinea.

Hashima Island, commonly called Gunkanjima (meaning Battleship Island), is an abandoned island lying about 15 kilometres from the city of Nagasaki, in southern Japan.The island's most notable features are the abandoned and undisturbed concrete apartment buildings and the surrounding sea wall. When it was finally vacated by the last residents in the mid-1970s the 6.3 hectare island was home to over five thousand residents. The wonk charged with coming up with an imaginative solution to the crisis concludes that a mid-Channel ghetto might not work.

Elsewhere is Whitehall there is a dynamic spreadsheet which will determine a ‘tipping point’ in terms of the cost of repatriation of migrants and the reclamation of Varne Bank. In the United Staes the Department of Homeland Security continues to spend millions of dollars flying illegal immigrants caught back to Mexico each summer. The agency has spent more than $85 million over the past eight years to transport illegals far beyond the border. In the Unted Kingdom data from a 2005 National Audit Office report suggested that the cost of removing an individual failed asylum seeker was £11,000.

Granted, the maths would probably not work out and land reclamation and construction of accommodation would take years. Even after over two centuries, the Varne Bank may have to wait longer to be part of a solution to a challenging problem.

The challenge this summer is also much greater than simply dealing with the few thousand who have reached 'The Jungle' at Calais and who are now making not only risky solo attempts to reach the United Kingdom via the tunnel, but increasingly banding together and, night for night, creating strength in numbers.  

The notorious Sangatte camp was closed in 2002. At that time Eurotunnel had spent more than £6 million on security measures to protect the terminal site, including twenty miles of outer fencing, six miles of razor wire and three hundred video cameras. Thirteen years later the response cannot be simply more fencing, more razor wire and more surveillance. New thinking is called for, and the recognition that much has changed since Sangatte was closed. There, for example, there was no need for charging points at which the power of mobile phones might be replenished. Social media were in their first infancy. Friendster had just launched and it would be another year before MySpace tempted the key young adult demographic. 

In 'The Jungle' no charismatic leadership figure has yet come forth to plan, coordinate and command the nightly sorties of ever larger groups of desperate chancers, people whose financial resources have been exhausted, who may be hungry and unwell and with few remaining personal possessions - apart from their cellphones. The nightmare scenario would predicate the emergence of a cunning strategist well aware of how Dai'esh has employed media technology and social networking to aid its growth to become a formidable foe with ambitions not limited to the Middle East. 'The Jungle' as an outpost, a forward bridgehead of the global Caliphate? The fear is to a certain extent justified. There are already migrants who prefer to pitch their makeshift tents several kilometres distant near the border with Belgium, mainly Shias fearful of potential Sunni dominance in the encampment closer to the tunnel.

If the Varne Bank idea can be dismissed as fanciful, then it must nevertheless be hoped that somebody somewhere is encouraging thinking which is 'out of the box', daring and unconventional. For this is a situation with attributes which are in many ways entirely new, even if it is not the first time that Britain has been threatened from across the Channel. The current problem is compounded, however, when the British press views it through a rear-view mirror, with jingoistic hand-wringing and simplistic sensationalism. 

The assembled migrants across from the White Cliffs, an ever growing cohort as others make their way north, include many who are quite without hope and whose willingness to put their lives at stake demands the utmost respect and who deserve whatever humanitarian aid that can be provided in order to alleviate their suffering. Those who first risk death to cross the Mediterranean in their tens of thousands are not a present-day iteration of the galloping cavalry imagined in 1802, charging through the tunnel, breathing fresh air on the Varne Bank. They are no invading army.

Not yet. 

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